Even as a teenage I remember browsing through my mom's cookbooks, marking recipes that peeked my interest, but rarely seeing any through to fruition. In part, this was due to my mother's love-hate relationship with the kitchen. Love because she believed strongly in family dinnertime and was happy to open our home and table to guests. Hate because she didn't actually enjoy cooking and certainly wasn't looking for opportunities to mix, chop, roast, or blend more than absolutely necessary. Market Day Chicken Stir Fry was a go-to and family favorite.
I, on the other hand, thought it might be exciting to try something new and create something delicious, so 16-year-old Joy eagerly volunteered to bring a dessert to a Fourth of July lake house celebration. I'd torn out this recipe from my mother's Good Housekeeping magazine, and the fact that the brownies were made from more than a box, an egg, water, and oil was already pushing me into uncharted culinary territory.
The recipe for mocha cinnamon frosting required a foreign ingredient to be brought into my parents' house: coffee. Neither of my parents are coffee drinkers, so we rarely ventured down the coffee aisle in the grocery story. I'm pretty sure the small container of instant coffee we purchased for these brownies in 1999 is still in my mother's cabinet.
It was with great enthusiasm that I set out to create these brownies, reading and rereading as I meticulously followed each step. The 9x13 pan of brownies was cooling on the table as I began the frosting - dissolving coffee, melting multiple chocolates, stirring, and whisking. I was so close.
The last step.
"Stir in confectioners sugar until well blended and smooth."
I scooped up that cup of sugar, poured it into my mocha goodness and stirred.
Smooth never came.
My inexperienced baking skills mindlessly skipped over the word confectioners, never even pausing to question what that word might mean. All I saw was sugar, and all I was left with was a grainy, sand-like frosting, filled with granulated sugar.
In case you know even less about baking than I did and are totally confused at this point, allow me to clarify, lest you replicate by mistake.
Confectioners sugar=powdered sugar=yummy, smooth frosting=total win
Granulated sugar=regular sugar=grainy, sand-like frosting=big oops for Joy
Oh, but wait. It gets better.
I served them.
I poured that gritty frosting onto my cinnamon spiced brownies, packed them in a cooler for the lake house and served them to my friends.
There is a lesson to be learned here: when it comes to food, perfection is a lofty standard, but edible is a requirement. Many disasters can be stomached and might even turn out surprisingly delicious - see Orange Chocolate Cake. However, you need to know when those imperfections have gone too far, resulting in pity bites and leaving your friends smiling to your face and spitting crunchy brownies out behind your back.
Know when to call it quits. There can be dignity in dumping a pan of brownies into the trash.
Make it again, make something new, or stop by a bakery, but please don't serve every disaster - even if you spent money on unusual ingredients - even if you spent your entire Saturday afternoon cooking - even if it was going perfectly until the very last step. (Insert heavy sigh.)
Although my dad and brother will never let me forget the day I served the grainy Mexican Brownies, I have since made these with confectioners sugar multiple times, and they are divine.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks)
2 cups granulated sugar (That's the regular sugar!)
1 TB vanilla
1 tsp. instant coffee (I have also used espresso or strong brewed coffee, and both work fine.)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 bar (3.5 oz) milk chocolate, chopped
1 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 TB butter
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
3 TB milk
1 cup confectioners sugar (That's the powdered sugar!)
Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a 9x13 baking pan. Line the pan with foil, extending the foil over the rim, and grease the foil. Yes, I know this is a lot of greasing and lining, but you'll thank me later.
In a medium bowl, mix flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in granulated sugar. Stir in eggs, one at a time until well blended. Add vanilla.
Slowly add the flour mixture, and stir until well blended.
Spread the batter into your prepared pan.
Bake about 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Cool brownies completely in the pan on a wire rack.
Make the Frosting:
* Note* This frosting is more of a glaze to pour on the brownies rather than a thick frosting to smear.
In a small bowl, dissolve the instant coffee in vanilla. If you are using espresso or strong coffee, just stir in the vanilla.
In a small saucepan, combine the milk chocolate, unsweetened chocolate, butter, cinnamon, and salt. Heat on medium-low until chocolates are melted. Stir occasionally.
Remove from the heat, and use a whisk to stir in the coffee mixture and milk.
Stir in confectioners powdered sugar until well blended and smooth.
Spread warm frosting over cooled brownies. Let stand for at least 20 minutes for the frosting to set.
When the frosting has set, use the foil edges to lift the brownies out of the pan. Peel away foil from the sides and cut brownies.
Betcha can't eat just one....
A similar essay was first published on Her View From Home.